A battle over benchmarks for Iraq

As GOP frustration with the war grows, the Iraq Index becomes more important.

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It's a new term – the "Iraq Index" – vaguely reminiscent of the Viet Cong body count as a measure of wartime progress. It is apparently part of an administration effort to head off defections by Republican moderates in Congress on future funding for the Iraq war.

At a no-holds-barred meeting in the White House last Tuesday that was supposed to have remained a secret, a reported 11 Republican lawmakers served notice that they would stick with the president on war funding for now, but could not be counted on after September unless the administration could show evidence of substantial progress in the war.

The president's immediate response was for the first time to indicate possible conditions attached to American support.

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He said, "It makes sense to have benchmarks as part of our discussion on how to go forward." But the meaning of benchmarks remains quite obscure. President Bush also said, "Sectarian murders are down." But, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, he did not mention that car bombings and killing of American soldiers are up.

Republican moderates decided to reach outside the government for clarification of what "benchmarks" really means.

The Brookings Institution in Washington, usually referred to as a liberal think tank, has created something called the "Iraq Index," and scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell were invited to meet with the Congressional Republicans and explain it.

The Brookings scholars tell me that the index is based on data compiled on various aspects of life in Iraq, items such as the monthly bomb rate and the number of foreign nationals kidnapped. But it also includes nonmilitary factors such as the rate of restoration of electricity and Internet access.

It may be a curious way to judge progress, but the Iraq Index may help to determine support for war funding after September.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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